Sunday, March 27, 2011

Teaching Quality Series, Part IV: Class Size & The Fallacy of Trickle-down Teaching

Bill GatesArne Duncan, and some of the other presiding education reform yahoos have started to question the benefits of smaller class sizes. DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson deserves some credit for a semi-acknowledgement of the importance of smaller class sizes in this Q&A with Bill Turque. She states that at least some kids should have smaller classes, however she repeats the notion that it's better to have a class of forty students with one effective teacher than a class of twenty students with an ineffective teacher. Now, she's not completely wrong, but I would issue several caveats to go with her generalization.

Henderson's thinking is an example of what I like to call voo-doo education policy. This theory of "trickle-down teaching" says smaller classes dilute the benefits of effective teachers and that an effective teacher's magic, no matter how thinly spread, will trickle down equally to all students before her, by sheer force of her supernatural talents and effectiveness. I would argue that that's the wrong way of looking it, that the larger class sizes get (or total student load for some secondary teachers), the more that a teacher's effectiveness will be diluted.

In my experience, teaching is not like showing a movie in a movie theater where everyone has the same experience no matter how many people are in theater, nor is learning a passive experience. Teaching can be more like being a server in a restaurant: after a certain point, the more tables you have to wait on, the worse your service is going to be, especially if each table is full, with different orders, and even different menus. I don't want my own children going to a school that is modeled after a McDonald's, nor do I want as a teacher to be the equivalent of a McDonald's worker. As my mother, a DC-based civil rights lawyer and school finance expert pleaded once, "Can't our public school leaders at least aim for The Olive Garden?"

In general, smaller class sizes help to increase the quality of education received. Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters is the guru of the benefits of small classes. Read here for a summary, or here if you want a more extensive list, of the research demonstrating the benefits of smaller class sizes. That being said, there are many factors to consider when thinking about ideal class sizes. Optimal class sizes depend on what's being taught and at what level, who's teaching, who's being taught, and how many teachers or education professionals are serving any group of students at once.

While the research is more mixed for older grades, the research for elementary is pretty clear that in general, twenty-two is the largest a K-3 class should get before the quality of education received is compromised. Even twenty-two students, though, seems large if the class includes students with special needs or other students who require more intensive instruction.

Teaching veteran and Education Week blogger Nancy Flanagan reminded me that at the secondary level, it's important to consider a teacher's total student load. An experienced and well-regarded high school AP English teacher told me he could easily manage a class of thirty to forty (so, Kaya Henderson is somewhat right here) and often has--he is very popular due to his rigorous curriculum and the attention his students receive. However, he made sure to say that it was only really feasible if he is only teaching three sections of that size. Beyond that, his workload becomes unreasonable and the students don't get the feedback or volume of work they need--he assigns fewer essays, for example, and works a punishing number of hours. Teaching AP English, requires significant out-of-class-time: for planning lectures, studying texts in depth, and giving targeted, individual feedback on writing. He also made it clear that a class size of forty is only manageable in a course like AP English, with independent, disciplined students and an advanced curriculum and only after he had been in the classroom for about ten years--larger classes would have been close to impossible when he was learning the ropes. Less experienced teachers, no matter whom they're teaching, should not be broken in with larger classes.

This leads to the consideration of whom a teacher is teaching. For example, I have limited experience teaching larger classes because, with a few exceptions, I have taught ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), either on its own or by way of social studies--what's called Sheltered Instruction or content-based language instruction. Generally, the more fluent the students were, the larger my class sizes were (though still on the smaller side), which is as it should be. However, students' literacy skills and prior education  also determines how much attention they will need; the daughter of a professor visiting from Korea will need different instruction and less intensive attention than the son of a Salvadoran farm worker with limited or no prior schooling. The greater the needs of the students and the more feedback and guidance they require in class, the smaller the classes should be.

We also must consider the difference between class sizes and the pupil-to-teacher ratio in a school building. For example, the ratio may be 22:1 in a particular school, but that doesn't mean that each teacher has only twenty-two students in her class. For one, some employees while identified as teachers, bringing down the building's pupil to teacher ratio, may not be used for actual teaching. For example, because of the over-emphasis on data-driven instruction and standardized testing, many schools are forced to fill teaching positions, not to mention use scarce resources, with standardized testing administrators and data collectors/analyzers . (Yes, all of this standardized testing mania not only deprives kids of meaningful learning experiences but keeps teachers from doing meaningful, and in some cases actual, teaching.) In addition, some employees identified as teachers may be used for tasks such as monitoring hallways or the cafeteria, or for handling student discipline--these are all jobs which should be done and staffed by other professionals.

We should also go beyond the ratios, keeping in mind that some teachers are employed as specialists, and do not teach full-size classes, for example, a reading specialist, special education teacher, or media specialist. Those teachers will often push into classes or pull students out for intensive small group instruction which will reduce the load for the regular classroom teacher. Other K-12 education professionals such as counselors, school psychologists, school nurses, and social workers also keep classroom teachers' work loads reasonable and appropriate to their expertise by using their own expertise to help students and their families to deal with broader academic, social, medical, and psychological issues. When schools lack those professionals, the number of students as well as the tasks those professionals are meant to perform all fall to the regular classroom teacher and to her administrator(s), reducing her and her principal's effectiveness.

To further complicate things, different districts make different allowances for how teacher positions can be used or designated and awards teaching positions to schools using a different formulas.

I saw the difference a reasonable class size can make to the quality of education received when we moved from Oakland, California, to Hanover County, Virginia. My twin sons' kindergarten teachers in Oakland Unified School District were both excellent, just as good as their first and second grade teachers in Hanover County. But I saw a huge difference in the quality of attention my children received. (Besides attending parent conferences, school events and looking over the work they bring home, I volunteer weekly.)

The schools serve similar populations (although at 72%, the school in Oakland has a much higher percentage of non-white students while at nearly 50%, their Hanover school has a higher percentage of free and reduced lunch students), but the difference in resources (and in the levels at which California and Virginia fund their public schools) was astounding. In Oakland, not only were their classes larger at twenty-five (and these were only the kindergarten classes!), but there was almost no other staff. The PTA funded resource teachers in PE, art, music, and library. Otherwise, there was one teachers' aide for the entire school, one administrator, one janitor, one cafeteria aide, and one administrative assistant. The school relied on a steady stream of parent volunteers and constant fundraising just to fund the basics and the occasional assembly or field trip, and field trips could only be taken if parents could serve as drivers. There was no busing at all.

In their Hanover County public elementary school, on the other hand, each class has between sixteen and nineteen students, and the school has fully funded resource teachers for art, music, and PE; reading and math specialists; special education teachers; a gifted-and-talented teacher; a registered nurse; several teachers' aides; two administrative assistants; a principal and an assistant principal; a social worker; a school counselor; a school psychologist; language pathologists; two or three janitors; and an entire cafeteria staff. County school buses transport students to and from school and there are lots of special assemblies, presentations, and field trips. Despite this "lavish" education spending, Hanover County is an extremely conservative district (represented by Eric, ahem, Cantor), socially and fiscally, and is known for its low spending.

In both schools, each of my sons had one teacher who was more traditional but more organized, while the other had one who was more creative but less organized. However, because of the smaller class sizes in Virginia, the teacher who was less creative was able to be more so without sacrificing classroom management, while the class of the teacher who was less organized didn't suffer for it because the class was smaller. Essentially, the teachers in Hanover County were more effective, not because they were more talented, but because they had smaller class sizes, adequate numbers of specialists and other education professionals, two administrators, and in general more support. As a parent, I get much more feedback and direct communications from teachers and see my sons flourish in the much more individualized and targeted instruction and attention they receive. I've often had the experience of the school contacting me about a potential issue before I have the chance to contact them, and believe me, I'm a vigilant parent.

Besides the extensive body of research available at Class Size Matters, Education journalist Dana Goldstein and Forbes education blogger E.D. Kain make the case for why the American public wants smaller class sizes. I would add my voice to that of the American public's. I acknowledge that smaller class sizes aren't a panacea. However, limiting a teacher's total student load, and assigning class sizes according to what age and level they teach, their experience, who and what they teach, and providing a supportive context with knowledgeable specialist teachers and other education professionals all make teachers more effective and increase the quality of education received.

Trickle down economics has failed us and so will trickle-down teaching. The larger the classes and student load, and the more support staff, counselors, school nurses, social workers, specialist and resource teachers' positions are eliminated, the more diluted any teacher's effectiveness will be.


  1. Kaya Henderson is a tool. I think we can safely say that. Like me, she's a bureaucrat - in a way - we're all tools. But putting a great teacher in front of 30 or 40 students in a classroom serving the kind of population that DC does is pretty moronic. It can be effective in different environments, but DC students demands smaller class sizes for a quality education.

    So many variables go into teaching and learning. Every environment is different. Kaya can talk all she wants, but I'd love to see her teach 40 9th graders in one classroom in SE to write quality essays.

  2. Good post! However I agree with the commenter above; I doubt any teacher, no matter how talented, can do an excellent job with three classes of 40 students. Providing "targeted, individual feedback on writing" for 120 students is near impossible, if he is giving out regular assignments. Think about it. If he takes only 10 minutes writing comments, and five minutes giving oral feedback per student, that's 120 * 15 minutes; or 30 hours per week. Teaching students to write well, even advanced students, is one of the most labor intensive jobs; that's why Freshman writing classes at Harvard are limited to no more than ten students per class.

  3. A more effective teacher with 40 students will burn out faster than a less effective teacher with 20 students.

    I'd like to see Bill Gates or Obama teach for a day. Seriously, where is either person's education credential?

  4. P:S Your writing is super smart and I love it! I keep a blog about education too. I used to be semi-enthusiastic about Obama's education ideas but now not so much.
    I'd love to get the opinion of other educators. Stop by and comment sometime if you can. Your opinion is appreciated!

  5. Thanks, Leonie & RE for reading & commenting. I'm going to see if I can get Joe to comment either here or through me. Either way, one of us will respond in more depth soon.

    Thanks, appleadayproject. What a compliment! I'll head over to your site once I post this comment.

  6. Joe Riener -- AP English teacherMarch 28, 2011 at 4:53 PM

    My notion of teaching writing to high school students is basically to convince them that someone is reading what they’re writing. I might pick on run-on sentences, or assertions-with-no-proof, or repeating the same thought, but what I’m basically trying to inculcate is self-reflection, self-awareness, self-criticism. Someone’s gonna read this sentence you’ve just written. Is it the best one you can write? When I’m focused, I can go through 25 essays in two hours. Every student feels I’ve read, considered, commented on their essay. They’ll revise it, or even if they don’t (they don’t have to, but they get a higher grade if they do) they know I’m paying attention to their words.

    I view this process as having a conversation in print. I try to harness the urge we all have to tell what hurt us, what we’re mad at, who we admire, what the gummit ought to do. Sometimes the talk gets deep. It’s all interesting to me. I can be sympathetic, or argumentative, or share something from my life, or urging them to stick up for themselves. I try to be where they’re not. Never denigrating of their efforts, even if their words fall short. Reading their writing emerges as psychological or philosophical engagement.

    I promise them I never show the essay to anyone without their permission. This is a private conversation, I tell them. This gives them freedom to try out what-they’ve-never-said-to-anyone. They get to take that first step in externalizing what had only been internal language. That’s a crucial first step in learning to write.

    I’m giving my students lots of practice. They write thirty 500-word essays, one a week. At the end of the course, having written their Riener-thirty, they’re not afraid of writing, of revising, of killing their children, as they say in writing workshops.

    It’s just training. It works with horses. I’ve been reading over 100 essays a week for 15 years. I’ve got it in me for another 15, en shallah. It’s a good job.

  7. It always amazes me when someone says class size does not matter. Let's see, a smaller class size means I get to do more one-on-one with my students; I can grade and return papers much more quickly; that it is harder for small problems to go unseen and incubate into bigger problems... the list goes on. No it is not a panacea but I can tell you right now I would much prefer 16 students to 24 or 28, just so I could give more time to each individual student. Another great post, btw, Rachel.


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